On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - B’shalach: When it's the Time to Act, and When it's the Time to Pray

In Parashat B'shalach, the Israelites arrive at the Sea of Reeds, the sea parts, and they walk across dry land toward freedom. Before they cross, though, there's a moment where Moses stands in front of the sea, and he has no idea what to do. He obviously figures it out... but how? Rabbi Jacobs discusses Parashat B'shalach, and the difference between action and prayer, in this episode of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah.

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Welcome to On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Every week Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism shares a new spin on the weekly Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. Some weeks he’s joined by a special guest and some weeks he just shares his own perspective. But On the Other Hand always provides a modern take on over 2000 years of Jewish wisdom. This week in episode 105, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat B’shalach. He asks when it's time for action, when it's time for prayer, and perhaps most importantly when is it time to connect prayer and action together. And if you're listening to our other podcast Stories We Tell, which you should be, this Thursday our story will have a similar theme.

This week we focus our attention on Parashat B’shalach in the Book of Exodus, with the unbelievably dramatic narrative of the Israelites coming to the Sea of Reeds and the sea parting, and they moving through the sea on dry land to the other side, to the shores of freedom.

What I love most in this incredible and overwhelming narrative is this one simple profound moment when Moses finds himself with the sea in front of him. He's got the Egyptian army behind him, and he is a Jewish leader is at a loss. This is not in the playbook. It doesn't say in some little script, “Okay what do you do now.” So he's in this moment, he's Moses after all, not just another Jewish leader—he’s the Jewish leader. He's supposed to know how to do everything and anything that is before the Jewish people.

Let me just give you the narrative to set the stage because it's unbelievably dramatic. So it says in Chapter 14 of Exodus, verse 10:

“As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to the Eternal and they said to Moses, ‘Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt saying, let us be. And we will serve the Egyptians, for it's better to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.’ But Moses said to the people, ‘Have no fear. Stand by and witness the deliverance which the eternal will work for you today, for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again. The Eternal will battle for you. You hold your peace.’”

And then God says incredibly, “Mah titzak elai.” God says to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.”

So incredibly, here's Moses kind of setting the stage and saying, and now God, take it away. And God says no, no, no, no. This is not my moment. This is your moment.

And the great medieval commentator Rashi says, “What does ‘Why do you cry out to me’ mean?” He says, “We learned that Moses was lingering over his prayer, and the Holy One said to Moses, “This is not the time to pray at length, for Israel is in trouble.”

Incredibly, you think of Moses as the quintessential Jewish leader. We call him in Hebrew, “Moshe Rabbeinu,” our rabbi. And he has a moment where he's at a loss, and so he's in a deep place of prayer. And God says, this isn't a time for prayer, this is a time for action.

And I think of all of our lives. I think not only those of us who happen to be rabbis like me, many others perhaps listening to the podcast. Nut most I'm going to say are not. When is it a time for prayer? When is it a time to act?

And I think in the modern era we probably think most often it's a time for action and not a time for prayer. But clearly Moses gets the smack down from the Holy One, Blessed be God, for confusing a time of action with a time of prayer. I think for us, most of us would probably know what to do with a moment of action, right?

I remember this litany from earlier this fall after the horrific slaughter in Las Vegas where a shooter just sprayed bullets on this group of concert goers. And there was kind of a refrain of, “they’re in our thoughts and prayers.” And there was a very strong reaction saying no, no, no, this isn't a time for thoughts and prayers. This is a time for action. Our country can no longer have a set of policies that allow the proliferation of firearms, and to reduce gun violence.

I think of other times where we march for civil rights and we get out into the streets and say, we have to act. We have to fight a certain policy, we have to fight a certain mindset.

But where is that time for prayer? I actually love one of the interpretations from the medieval commentator Nachmanides. He says, “Our sages have explained that it was indeed Moses who was crying out and praying to God. And this is correct, for he did not know what to do despite the fact that God had told him he would gain glory through Pharaoh. He, Moses did not know what to do.”

 Sometimes in our prayer we discern what it is that we need to do. Prayer is not separate from action. Very often prayer is that place in that moment where we ground ourselves on the most essential and core beliefs that we have that allows us to act. And sometimes we need that prayerful moment before we act to make sure that we act with love and with humility, not with arrogance or with aggression. So I love that it's framed in the moment in Exodus as an action moment, not a prayer moment.

But I wonder if we could think of finding that moment of prayer and making sure that it leads to action. I think that's probably the biggest fear that the medieval commentators have, that our Moses was more comfortable praying than acting. And we may be more comfortable acting than praying. But the two actually can feed one another very beautifully.

Perhaps the most compelling way to frame this is a teaching by Rabbi Amy Eilberg who was the first woman to be ordained by the Conservative Movement. And she has an absolutely inspired way of understanding when prayers work. She says, “Prayer may work when the thing that we have asked of God indeed comes to be. That's one way we pray.”

But she says, “Prayer may also work by significantly connecting us with the Jewish community and with our tradition.” She says, “It can work by quieting or centering the self. It can work by having momentary transporting us to a place of beauty and transcendence. It may work by helping us focus on the blessings in our lives. It may work by invoking a greater sense of God's presence, giving us strength to face the trials of our lives.”

I think she gives us a beautiful way to think about prayer as that underpinning to action and not just as a kind of cosmic vending machine, where we say, we need this, God give us that. But it's a way to bring God into our lives, to bring God's holiness, God's clarity, God's moral demands, but for us to be God's hands and feet and for us to be able to act.

So I know that many of us will find ourselves in a Moses-like moment with some daunting challenge in front of us and behind us. And we might throw up our arms and say, you know, what do I do? Is it a time of action? If it is, what do I need to do in this moment?

And I hope that we'll find regular times for prayer, not just on holidays or at a Shabbat table, or maybe at a service at one of our synagogues or in one of our communities, but even more personal prayer in the moments that sometimes precede dramatic times and challenges in our lives.

If we can, I think we can do what Moses did in Nachmanides’ interpretation, which is to discern the holy dimension to a moment and to find more inner clarity to do what is sometimes very painful, very difficult. But to take that time to inspire the actions with the prayerfulness of our tradition.

We know what happens with Moses, turns out pretty well. But what you may know also is that the reason the sea parted according to our tradition wasn't because of the prayer, but because one guy, Nachshon ben Aminadav, went forward. He went forward into the water and when the water reached his nostrils, well God said, boy this this is a leader of courage and conviction.

So in that case, it's the action, the faithful action that caused a ripple of change and opportunity and redemption to our people. So let's not be narrow. Let's not be modern versus traditional. Let's find the place for prayer and the place for action. And when we have both, and there is strong and deep synergy, we have the power to change the world.

Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah. If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week, l’hitraot.